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The Man in Lower Ten/Chapter 23


 

CHAPTER XXIII


A NIGHT AT THE LAURELS


I SLEPT most of the way to Cresson, to the disgust of the little detective. Finally he struck up an acquaintance with a kindly-faced old priest on his way home to his convent school, armed with a roll of dance music and surreptitious bundles that looked like boxes of candy. From scraps of conversation I gleaned that there had been mysterious occurrences at the convent,—ending in the theft of what the reverend father called vaguely, "a quantity of undermuslins." I dropped asleep at that point, and when I roused a few moments later, the conversation had progressed. Hotchkiss had a diagram on an envelope.

"With this window bolted, and that one inaccessible, and if, as you say, the—er—garments were in a tub here at X, then, as you hold the key to the other door,—I think you said the convent dog did not raise any disturbance? Pardon a personal question, but do you ever walk in your sleep?"

The priest looked bewildered.

"I'll tell you what to do," Hotchkiss said cheerfully, leaning forward, "look around a little yourself before you call in the police. Somnambulism is a queer thing. It's a question whether we are most ourselves sleeping or waking. Ever think of that? Live a saintly life all day, prayers and matins and all that, and the subconscious mind hikes you out of bed at night to steal undermuslins! Subliminal theft, so to speak. Better examine the roof."

I dozed again. When I wakened Hotchkiss sat alone, and the priest, from a corner, was staring at him dazedly, over his breviary.

It was raining when we reached Cresson, a wind-driven rain that had forced the agent at the news-stand to close himself in, and that beat back from the rails in parallel lines of white spray. As he went up the main street, Hotchkiss was cheerfully oblivious of the weather, of the threatening dusk, of our generally draggled condition. My draggled condition, I should say, for he improved every moment,—his eyes brighter, his ruddy face ruddier, his collar newer and glossier. Sometime, when it does not encircle the little man's neck, I shall test that collar with a match.

I was growing steadily more depressed: I loathed my errand and its necessity. I had always held that a man who played the spy on a woman was beneath contempt. Then, I admit I was afraid of what I might learn. For a time, however, this promised to be a negligible quantity. The streets of the straggling little mountain town had been clean-washed of humanity by the downpour. Windows and doors were inhospitably shut, and from around an occasional drawn shade came narrow strips of light that merely emphasized our gloom. When Hotchkiss' umbrella turned inside out, I stopped.

"I don't know where you are going," I snarled, "and I don't care. But I'm going to get under cover inside of ten seconds. I'm not amphibious."

I ducked into the next shelter, which happened to be the yawning entrance to a livery stable, and shook myself, dog fashion. Hotchkiss wiped his collar with his handkerchief. It emerged gleaming and unwilted.

"This will do as well as any place," he said, raising his voice above the rattle of the rain. "Got to make a beginning."

I sat down on the usual chair without a back, just inside the door, and stared out at the darkening street. The whole affair had an air of unreality. Now that I was there, I doubled the necessity, or the value, of the journey. I was wet and uncomfortable. Around me, with Cresson as a center, stretched an irregular circumference of mountain, with possibly a ten-mile radius, and in it I was to find the resident of a woman whose first name I did not know, and a man who, so far, had been a purely chimerical person.

Hotchkiss had penetrated the steaming interior of the care, and now his voice, punctuated by the occasional thud of horses' hoofs, came to me.

"Something light will do," he was saying. "A runabout, perhaps." He came forward rubbing his hands, followed by a thin man in overalls. "Mr. Peck says," he began,—"this is Mr. Peck of Peck and Peck,—says that the place we are looking for is about seven miles from the town. It's clearing, isn't it?"

"It is not," I returned savagely. ""And we don't want a runabout, Mr. Peck. What we require is an hermetically sealed diving suit. I suppose there isn't a machine to be had?" Mr. Peck gazed at me in silence: machine to him meant other things than motors. "Automobile," I supplemented. His face cleared.

"None but private affairs. I can give you a good buggy with a rubber apron. Mike, is the doctor's horse in?"

I am still uncertain as to whether the raw-boned roan we took out that night over the mountains was the doctor's horse or not. If it was, the doctor may be a good doctor, but he doesn't know anything about a horse. And furthermore, I hope he didn't need the beast that miserable evening.

While they harnessed the horse, Hotchkiss told me what he had learned.

"Six Curtises in the town and vicinity," he said. "Sort of family name around here. One of them is telegraph operator at the station. Person we are looking for—is—was—a wealthy widow with a brother—named Sullivan! Both supposed to have been killed on the Flier."

"Her brother," I repeated stupidly.

"You see," Hotchkiss went on, "three people, in one party, took the train here that night, Miss West, Mrs. Curtis and Sullivan. The two women had the drawing-room, Sullivan had lower seven. What we want to find out is just who these people were, where they came from, if Bronson knew them, and how Miss West became entangled with them. She may have married Sullivan, for one thing."

I fell into gloom after that. The roan was led unwillingly into the weather, Hotchkiss and I in eclipse behind the blanket. The liveryman stood in the doorway and called directions to us. "You can't miss it," he finished. "Got the name over the gate anyhow, 'The Laurels.' The servants are still there: leastways, we didn't bring them down." He even took a step into the rain as Hotchkiss picked up the lines. "If you're going to settle the estate," he bawled, "don't forget us, Peck and Peck. A half-bushel of name and a bushel of service."

Hotchkiss could not drive. Born a clerk, he guided the roan much as he would drive a bad pen. And the roan spattered through puddles and splashed ink—mud, that is—until I was in a frenzy of irritation.

"What are we going to say when we get there?" I asked after I had finally taken the reins in my one useful hand. "Get out there at midnight and tell the servants we have come to ask a few questions about the family? It's an idiotic trip anyhow; I wish I had stayed at home."

The roan fell just then, and we had to crawl out and help him up. By the time we had partly unharnessed him our matches were gone, and the small bicycle lamp on the buggy was wavering only too certainly. We were covered with mud, panting with exertion, and even Hotchkiss showed a disposition to be surly. The rain, which had lessened for a time, came on again, the lightning flashes doing more than anything else to reveal our isolated position.

Another mile saw us, if possible, more despondent. The water in our clothes had had time to penetrate: the roan had sprained his shoulder, and drew us along in a series of convulsive jerks. And then through the rain-spattered window of the blanket, I saw a light. It was a small light, rather yellow, and it lasted perhaps thirty seconds. Hotchkiss missed it, and was inclined to doubt me. But in a couple of minutes the roan hobbled to the side of the road and stopped, and I made out a break in the pines and an arched gate.

It was a small gate, too narrow for the buggy. I pulled the horse into as much shelter as possible under the trees, and we got out. Hotchkiss tied the beast and we left him there, head down against the driving rain, drooping and dejected. Then we went toward the house.

It was a long walk. The path bent and twisted, and now and then we lost it. We were climbing as we went. Oddly there were no lights ahead, although it was only ten o'clock,—not later. Hotchkiss kept a little ahead of me, knocking into trees now and then, but finding the path in half the time I should have taken. Once, as I felt my way around a tree in the blackness, I put my hand unexpectedly on his shoulder, and felt a shudder go down my back.

"What do you expect me to do?" he protested, when I remonstrated. "Hang out a red lantern? What was that? Listen."

We both stood peering into the gloom. The sharp patter of the rain on leaves had ceased, and from just ahead there came back to us the stealthy padding of feet in wet soil. My hand closed on Hotchkiss' shoulder, and we listened together, warily. The steps were close by, unmistakable. The next flash of lightning showed nothing moving: the house was in full view now, dark and uninviting, looming huge above a terrace, with an Italian garden at the side. Then the blackness again. Somebody's teeth were chattering: I accused Hotchkiss but he denied it.

"Although I'm not very comfortable, I'll admit," he confessed; "there was something breathing right at my elbow here a moment ago."

"Nonsense!" I took his elbow and steered him in what I made out to be the direction of the steps of the Italian garden. "I saw a deer just ahead by the last flash; that's what you heard. By Jove, I hear wheels."

We paused to listen and Hotchkiss put his hand on something close to us. "Here's your deer," he said. "Bronze."

As we neared the house the sense of surveillance we had had in the park gradually left us. Stumbling over flower beds, running afoul of a sun-dial, groping our way savagely along hedges and thorny banks, we reached the steps finally and climbed the terrace.

It was then that Hotchkiss fell over one of the two stone urns which, with tall boxwood trees in them, mounted guard at each side of the door. He didn't make any attempt to get up. He sat in a puddle on the brick floor of the terrace and clutched his leg and swore softly in Government English.

The occasional relief of the lightning was gone. I could not see an outline of the house be fore me. We had no matches, and an instant's investigation showed that the windows were boarded and the house closed. Hotchkiss, still recumbent, was ascertaining the damage, tenderly peeling down his stocking.

"Upon my soul," he said finally, "I don't know whether this moisture is blood or rain. I think I've broken a bone."

"Blood is thicker than water," I suggested. "Is it sticky? See if you can move your toes."

There was a pause: Hotchkiss moved his toes. By that time I had found a knocker and was making the night hideous. But there was no response save the wind that blew sodden leaves derisively in our faces. Once Hotchkiss declared he heard a window-sash lifted, but renewed violence with the knocker produced no effect.

"There's only one thing to do," I said finally. "I'll go back and try to bring the buggy up for you. You can't walk, can you?"

Hotchkiss sat back in his puddle and said he didn't think he could stir, but for me to go back to town and leave him, that he didn't have any family dependent on him, and that if he was going to have pneumonia he had probably got it already. I left him there, and started back to get the horse.

If possible, it was worse than before. There was no lightning, and only by a miracle did I find the little gate again. I drew a long breath of relief, followed by another, equally long, of dismay. For I had found the hitching strap and there was nothing at the end of it! In a lull of the wind I seemed to hear, far off, the eager thud of stable-bound feet. So for the second time I climbed the slope to the Laurels, and on the way I thought of many things to say.

I struck the house at a new angle, for I found a veranda, destitute of chairs and furnishings, but dry and evidently roofed. It was better than the terrace, and so, by groping along the wall, I tried to make my way to Hotchkiss. That was how I found the open window. I had passed perhaps six, all closed, and to have my hand grope for the next one, and to find instead the soft drapery of an inner curtain, was startling, to say the least.

I found Hotchkiss at last around an angle of the stone wall, and told him that the horse was gone. He was disconcerted, but not abased; maintaining that it was a new kind of knot that couldn't slip and that the horse must have chewed the halter through! He was less enthusiastic than I had expected about the window.

"It looks uncommonly like a trap," he said. "I tell you there was some one in the park below when we were coming up. Man has a sixth sense that scientists ignore—a sense of the nearness of things. And all the time you have been gone, some one has been watching me."

"Couldn't see you," I maintained; "I can't see you now. And your sense of contiguity didn't tell you about that flower crock."

In the end, of course, he consented to go with me. He was very lame, and I helped him around to the open window. He was full of moral courage, the little man: it was only the physical in him that quailed. And as we groped along, he insisted on going through the window first.

"If it is a trap," he whispered, "I have two arms to your one, and, besides, as I said before, life holds much for you. As for me, the government would merely lose an indifferent employee."

When he found I was going first he was rather hurt, but I did not wait for his protests. I swung my feet over the sill and dropped. I made a clutch at the window-frame with my good hand when I found no floor under my feet, but I was too late. I dropped probably ten feet and landed with a crash that seemed to split my ear-drums. I was thoroughly shaken, but in some miraculous way the bandaged arm had escaped injury.

"For Heaven's sake," Hotchkiss was calling from above, "have you broken your back?"

"No," I returned, as steadily as I could, "merely driven it up through my skull. This is a staircase. I'm coming up to open another window."

It was eerie work, but I accomplished it finally, discovering, not without mishap, a room filled with more tables than I had ever dreamed of, tables that seemed to waylay and strike at me. When I had got a window open, Hotchkiss crawled through, and we were at last under shelter.

Our first thought was for a light. The same laborious investigation that had landed us where we were, revealed that the house was lighted by electricity, and that the plant was not in operation. By accident I stumbled across a tabouret with smoking materials, and found a half dozen matches. The first one showed us the magnitude of the room we stood in, and revealed also a brass candle-stick by the open fireplace, a candle-stick almost four feet high, supporting a candle of similar colossal proportions. It was Hotchkiss who discovered that it had been recently lighted. He held the match to it and peered at it over his glasses.

"Within ten minutes," he announced impressively, "this candle has been burning. Look at the wax! And the wick! Both soft."

"Perhaps it's the damp weather," I ventured, moving a little nearer to the circle of light. A gust of wind came in just then, and the flame turned over on its side and threatened demise. There was something almost ridiculous in the haste with which we put down the window and nursed the flicker to life.

The peculiarly ghost-like appearance of the room added to the uncanniness of the situation. The furniture was swathed in white covers for the winter; even the pictures wore shrouds. And in a niche between two windows a bust on a pedestal, similarly wrapped, one arm extended under its winding sheet, made a most life-like ghost, if any ghost can be life-like.

In the light of the candle we surveyed each other, and we were objects for mirth. Hotchkiss was taking off his sodden shoes and preparing to make himself comfortable, while I hung my muddy raincoat over the ghost in the corner. Thus habited, he presented a rakish but distinctly more comfortable appearance.

"When these people built," Hotchkiss said, surveying the huge dimensions of the room, "they must have bought a mountain and built all over it. What a room!"

It seemed to be a living-room, although Hbtchkiss remarked that it was much more like a dead one. It was probably fifty feet long and twenty-five feet wide. It was very high, too, with a domed ceiling, and a gallery ran around the entire room, about fifteen feet above the floor. The candle light did not penetrate beyond the dim outlines of the gallery rail, but I fancied the wall there hung with smaller pictures.

Hotchkiss had discovered a fire laid in the enormous fireplace, and in a few minutes we were steaming before a cheerful blaze. Within the radius of its light and heat, we were comfortable again. But the brightness merely emphasized the gloom of the ghostly corners. We talked in subdued tones, and I smoked a box of Russian cigarettes which I found in a table drawer. We had decided to stay all night, there being nothing else to do. I suggested a game of double-dummy bridge, but did not urge it when my companion asked me if it resembled euchre. Gradually, as the ecclesiastical candle paled in the firelight, we grew drowsy. I drew a divan into the cheerful area, and stretched myself out for sleep. Hotchkiss, who said the pain in his leg made him wakeful, sat wide-eyed by the fire, smoking a pipe.

I have no idea how much time had passed when something threw itself violently on my chest. I roused with a start and leaped to my feet, and a large Angora cat fell with a thump to the floor. The fire was still bright, and there was an odor of scorched leather through the room, from Hotchkiss' shoes. The little detective was sound asleep, his dead pipe in his fingers. The cat sat back on its haunches and wailed.

The curtain at the door into the hallway bellied slowly out into the room and fell again. The cat looked toward it and opened its mouth for another howl. I thrust at it with my foot, but it refused to move. Hotchkiss stirred uneasily, and his pipe clattered to the floor.

The cat was standing at my feet, staring behind me. Apparently it was following with it eyes, an object unseen to me, that moved behind me. The tip of its tail waved threateningly, but when I wheeled I saw nothing.

I took the candle and made a circuit of the room. Behind the curtain that had moved the door was securely closed. The windows were shut and locked, and everywhere the silence was absolute. The cat followed me majestically. I stooped and stroked its head, but it persisted in its uncanny watching of the corners of the room.

When I went back to my divan, after putting a fresh log on the fire, I was reassured. I took the precaution, and smiled at myself for doing it, to put the fire tongs within reach of my hand. But the cat would not let me sleep. After a time I decided that it wanted water, and I started out in search of some, carrying the candle without the stand. I wandered through several rooms, all closed and dismantled, before I found a small lavatory opening off a billiard room. The cat lapped steadily, and I filled a glass to take back with me. The candle flickered in a sickly fashion that threatened to leave me there lost in the wanderings of the many hallways, and from somewhere there came an occasional violent puff of wind. The cat stuck by my feet, with the hair on its back raised menacingly. I don't like cats; there is something psychic about them.

Hotchkiss was still asleep when I got back to the big room. I moved his boots back from the fire, and trimmed the candle. Then, with sleep gone from me, I lay back on my divan and reflected on many things: on my idiocy in coming; on Alison West, and the fact that only a week before she had been a guest in this very house; on Richey and the constraint that had come between us. From that I drifted back to Alison, and to the barrier my comparative poverty would be.

The emptiness, the stillness were oppressive. Once I heard footsteps coming, rhythmical steps that neither hurried nor dragged, and seemed to mount endless staircases without coming any closer. I realized finally that I had not quite turned off the tap, and that the lavatory, which I had circled to reach, must be quite close.

The cat lay by the fire, its nose on its folded paws, content in the warmth and companionship. I watched it idly. Now and then the green wood hissed in the fire, but the cat never batted an eye. Through an unshuttered window the lightning flashed. Suddenly the cat looked up. It lifted its head and stared directly at the gallery above. Then it blinked, and stared again. I was amused. Not until it had got up on its feet, eyes still riveted on the balcony, tail waving at the tip, the hair on its back a bristling brush, did I glance casually over my head.

From among the shadows a face gazed down at me, a face that seemed a fitting tenant of the ghostly room below. I saw it as plainly as I might see my own face in a mirror. While I stared at it with horrified eyes, the apparition faded. The rail was there, the Bokhara rug still swung from it, but the gallery was empty.

The cat threw back its head and wailed.